Slain during the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Kofi Awoonor - one of the leading lights of African literature and Ghanaian-born poet -is sorely missed by the continent's literati. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports.
Could Fate have thus decreed it? For why would the iconic Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor have to travel all the way to Nairobi to keep a date with the Grim Reaper? According to the reports, the man, who served as his country's eighth permanent representative to the United Nations from 1990 to 1994, was in the Kenyan capital for a literary festival, called Storymoja Hay Festival.
Even so, it remains incomprehensible to humanity that his eventful and lustrous earth-life would come to such an abrupt, brutal end at Nairobi's Westgate Mall on September 21. Thus ended on a tragic note what promised to be a regular Saturday outing...For the Somali Islamist group commonly known in Arabic as Al Shabaab had chosen that day - of all days - to unleash terror and leave a trail of sorrow, tears and blood in the consciousness of many.
Fate had deftly woven the literary festival into the tapestry of his existence. It turned out that his nephew, Kwame Dawes, also a renowned poet, was initiating an African poetry book series, which he said "is committed to publishing African writers, African poets primarily" and would be published in early 2014. Awoonor had expressed his willingness to be part of the book, titled Promises of Hope: New and Selected Works, which Dawes told PBS News Hour, "is edited, with a selection done by Kofi Anyidoho, another great Ghanaian poet."
The Grim Reaper had used the celebration of this book at the Storymoja Hay Festival to lure the poet to the Kenyan capital. To think that the life of the one-time political activist, who once served a jail term for supporting a party that was in opposition, would be snuffed out in a Nairobi upmarket shopping mall! To think he had arrived the East African country with his son to take part in the four-day literary event, only to make up the statistic of the 68 known t have been killed at the Nairobi mall! And that his son Afetsi, wounded in terror attack, had the unpleasant task of returning to Ghana on Wednesday with his body.
He was billed to perform at the festival, which celebrates writing and storytelling, that Saturday evening and the next day alongside other African poets. But with the expected pall of gloom cast by his death, the event honoured his memory by winding down its activities early that Saturday, September 21.
It was an emotional gathering that converged on Monday night at Nairobi's Louis Leakey Auditorium for a memorial tribute in Professor Awoonor's honour. The shared sense of grief was palpable among these kindred souls. Visiting writers - including the US-based Nigerian author, Teju Cole and Warsan Shire - joined Kenya's literary community members like Paula Kahumbu, John Sibi-Okumu, Billy Kahora, Binyavanga Wainaina and festival organisers Muthoni Garland and Aleya Kassam to read from the late literary titan's stirring collections.
Garland, the Storymoja founder, had the previous day's evening expressed the literati's collective sorrow with the words: "We are devastated by the loss of Professor Awoonor, but hope must prevail."
On that note, she added that the festival was committed to finding ways "to honour the work and spirit of this great African author and intellectual", urging the public to share tributes on the Storymoja website.
Meanwhile, the news of his sudden tragic exit from this side of existence equally sent shockwaves rippling across Nigeria's literary landscape. The members of the Port Harcourt-based Rainbow Book Club and the city's literati grieved his passage and described him as "one of Africa's outstanding sons... and "a victim of a senseless siege on innocent people at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi".
The fond memories of Professor Awoonor's last visit Nigeria still lingered in their consciousness. The late poet was a guest writer at the maiden edition of the book club's flagship project, the Garden City Literary Festival (now Port Harcourt Book Festival) which held at the University of Port Harcourt in 2008. At the event, he was in the good company of the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, and the novelist, Captain Elechi Amadi and addressed a capacity-filled auditorium swarming with enthusiastic students, staff and guests at the university.
At the four-day festival, he also sat through a symposium organised by the university's English Department and facilitated a Master Class for upcoming writers. He also fielded questions at a Meet-the-Author session attended by over 200 literary enthusiasts.
His collection, The House by the Sea, was one of the books of the festival's maiden edition. "Visitors at the festival took to Kofi Awonoor almost immediately, thanks to the winning combination of his personable and humble character," the festival's organisers reminisced. "They huddled around him at the end to get his autographs; the signed books now remain a testament to his presence at the event and in their lives."
"The Rainbow Book Club mourns his passing deeply and sends prayers out to his loved ones," continued the organisers' statement. Obari Gomba, one of this year's initially shortlisted poets for this year's edition of the Nigeria LNG-sponsored The Nigeria Literature Prize, recalled his encounter in a terse statement. "Since 2008 when I met Kofi Awoonor, I'd known him as debonair old man, whose art is deep and graceful. It hurts that the merchants of evil have killed Awoonor!"
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, a Lagos-based celebrated Nigerian poet, said in his tribute: "Kofi Awoonor can never be written about in the past tense. He is an ever-present ancestor. His immortal poem, 'Songs of Sorrow', is a classic in excelsis. His novel, This Earth, My Brother is an existential tour de force. Not even death can kill Kofi Awoonor let alone the moronic mullahs of terror."
In his tribute, a Lagos-based poet and writer, James Eze wrote: "Coming on the heels of Chinua Achebe's death, the passing of Kofi Awoonor is a cruel blow to African literature. I read This Earth my Brother in my early years and was astonished by the depth of his chants. I will miss Awoonor! I really will ... " In Awoonor's memory, the final event of the Port Harcourt Book Festival, which holds from October 21 to 26, features a jazz and poetry evening as a tribute evening.
Tributes continued to pour in and trail him back to his native Ghana. Hundreds, including his relatives, waited at the Accra airport on Wednesday to receive his body. Among them were top government officials and members of parliament came to the airport. There were also elders in red and black who poured libations and later accompanied the casket as it was carted away in a hearse from the airport, trailed by two bugle-blowing soldiers. The hundreds of people, whose education he had sponsored, would readily agree with the departed's brother, Robert, who had described him as "a big tree that has fallen".
A "big tree" indeed! This graduate of the State University of New York, who lectured at universities both in Ghana and the US, also served as Ghana's ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations.Then, there is the fact that, as a pioneer of African literature, his works are a staple in the secondary school curricula across the continent.
Malian writer Manthia Diawara said he "used literature as a tool of emancipation, of independence and of African unity." Professor Diawara, who heads the Institute of Afro-American Affairs at the at New York University, also acknowledged Awoonor's efforts at creating create a new form of African poetry that mirrored the style of the African griots, or traditional storytellers, Diawara said. "He used both the rhythmic form, and sometimes used the same words as in the local language," he said. "... He took sayings, funeral dirges or wedding celebrations, and put them into English, in a well-worked manner."
Fellow African poets also sent in their condolences in verse. One of them, the Freie University Berlin lecturer, Wanjohi Wa Makokha wrote in an online tribute: "The new night is livid with silences, wet ones. In this time without light, no sound, no word oozes out of empty hearts here. The artists of Evil write verse thus?"
Kofi Anyidoho, his long-time and fellow academic, remembers his "for his strict adherence to the truth no matter what." According to him, Awoonor "was a teacher in many ways to a whole lot of us and we would remember him."
The late Ghanaian literary luminary, whose work is enriched by the poetic and mythic traditions of his native Ewe people, published his first collection, titled Rediscovery and Other Poems, in 1964 as George Awoonor Williams. He was then a student at the University of Ghana. He was born on March 13, 1935 of mixed Togolese and Sierra Leonean ancestry in the south-eastern part of Ghana (then the Gold Coast). His first collection of poems, Songs of Sorrow, was greatly influenced the oral traditions of his native Ewe people. Ditto his second collection of poems,Night of My Blood, and a novel, This Earth, My Brother... (both published in 1971). The latter efforts make allusions to European writers like Dante, Pablo Neruda and TS Eliot, among others. These influences lingered in his third volume of poetry, Ride Me, Memory (1973), which featured what he called "American Profiles" and "African Memories".
Other titles followed in its trail. One of them, On Having Been an Experimental Sacred Cow for Four Years, and a Token African on Faculty, tells readers his reason for returning to Ghana in 1975 from the US. That year his influential history of African literary traditions, The Breast of the Earth (1975), focused on the links between African vernacular traditions and its emerging written literature. The House by the Sea (1978) were his prison poems, following his year-long incarceration without trial for allegedly planning to overthrow the military government. His other publications are Ghana: A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times (1990), as well as two more volumes of poetry and a satirical novel, Comes the Voyager at Last (1992), deriding among others his fellow Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah.
Awoonor's professional trajectory took him through the Ghana Film Corporation, where he eventually became a director. Besides setting up the Ghana Playhouse, he also edited the literary magazine Okyeame and was in addition an associate editor of the Transition pan-African journal.
He burnished his literary and academic credentials in the UK after the 1966 military coup that ousted Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah. In addition to studying for an MA in literature at the University of London, he wrote radio plays for the BBC including Lament, a short, poetic and moving drama. He was also a visiting professor in African literature and chairman of the comparative literature programme at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, US. He became the head of the English Department at the University of Cape Coast when he returned to Ghana.
The late poet once wrote: "I have gone through the trauma of growth, anger, love, and the innocence and nostalgia of my personal dreams. These are beyond me now.Not anger, or love, but the sensibility that shaped and saw them as communal acts of which I am only the articulator.
"Now I write out my renewed anguish about the crippling distresses of my country and my people, of death by guns, of death by disease and malnutrition, of the death of friends whose lives held so much promise, of the chicanery of politics and the men who indulge in them, of the misery of the poor in the midst of plenty."
A family funeral has been planned for Thursday, October 3 for the father of six children. This would be followed by a state memorial service on Friday, October 11 and a final burial in Wheta, his hometown in south-eastern Ghana on November 11.